How do you buy more time to flee a soon to be disaster area? Tapping into data from an earthquake safety app could help.
While I have experienced a few shakes in my lifetime, I’ve never thought of having a mobile app on hand for early warnings, as I’m sure many residents on the West Coast do.
Interested in learning more about the early warning earthquake app, MyShake, and its relation to the ShakeAlert system, I interviewed Dr. Jennifer Strauss, External Relations Officer for the Berkeley Seismology Lab and Product Manager of the MyShake App.
Here’s a snapshot of our conversation with five things you need to know about the app.
5 Things to Know About the Earthquake App, MyShake
1. MyShake uses data provided by the ShakeAlert early warning system.
You might have heard that the ShakeAlertLA app, which focused on Los Angeles County, has been retired, but the ShakeAlert early warning system is still utilized for the MyShake app.
“We have seismometers, which are the instruments that measure the earthquake energy all up and down the West Coast, and we characterize the earthquake as it has begun and forecast what we think the outcome is going to be. That information gets sent to various partners that are working with the ShakeAlert system,” explains Strauss.
The MyShake app is also supported by the California Office for Emergency Services and is recognized as its official earthquake app.
2. With the app, your smartphone is used as a sensor to gather motion data in tandem with traditional earthquake sensors.
One unique feature of this app is that it uses your smartphone as a sensor, but the readings are collected in conjunction with readings from traditional earthquake sensors. A few drawbacks with those traditional sensors have to do with cost and maintenance — that’s one reason why phones are being used to help detect earthquake activity.
“We know that the ShakeAlert system for the West Coast of the U.S. is a great system and super reliable, but traditional seismometers are really expensive to put in the ground, to maintain, [and] to have permitting access to put them in the right places.”
Using the phone sensors is part of a research project that Strauss is doing at UC Berkeley with the Governor’s office to understand how that data could increase safety and knowledge for their project.
3. The app uses machine learning, similar to how our brain processes information
A term that stuck out to me was a “neural network algorithm.” Essentially, the app uses machine learning to distinguish the difference between human activity and earthquake activity.
“Machine learning is kind of like a buzzword you hear everywhere, and everybody’s trying it, but machine learning works really well for earthquakes because we have sensors of all types reporting earthquake data 24 hours a day [and] 7 days a week. Because the data is recorded at really, really fast time intervals, it’s a lot of data to go through.”
“There are little things in that data we haven’t even discovered yet. One way to really analyze this data in a very broad way and without putting preconceived notions on [it] is by machine learning. It’s a really great opportunity for seismology right now,” says Strauss.
4. Currently, MyShake only provides earthquake alerts for California residents.
When it comes to expanding the app’s use beyond California, the My Shake team keeps an open mind.
“Our full desire is to have early earthquake warnings everywhere in the globe because we believe all people should be protected or provided information as much as possible to make it equitable. But right now, the state of California itself is a big lift, and we’re still focused on that.”
5. The MyShake team takes consumer privacy seriously.
MyShake doesn’t require users to create an account for the app, so you won’t be asked to provide your name or an email address for their service. While the app will need to use your location, it will be an approximated location so that you can receive earthquake alerts pertinent to your area.
“We had these recent data privacy initiatives that have gone through. There [are] a couple of things we do to provide privacy and security,” says Strauss.
She adds that her team receives a registration token so that they can identify your device and location only.
“For alerting, we need to know where your location is because we have to alert you for [information] that’s going to affect you and not for [information you wouldn’t] care about. We don’t get your precise location regularly. We want to be accurate, but we don’t want to be tracking people. If we’re collecting an earthquake waveform, we do get precise locations for that because we’re using this data to try to push the envelope forward on the research, but that’s not a constant thing,” explains Strauss.
Regardless of location, Strauss adds that understanding how to prepare for an earthquake is essential to your safety.
“We also have a safety page on the app to tell you how you can prepare for an earthquake. Some people who don’t live in California or Alaska where there [are] earthquakes all the time don’t really think about what [they can] do to prepare for an earthquake.”
Photos by the MyShake Team / Guangli / Shutterstock